Sunday 8 May 2011

5: Liverpool's an Altered Town

A broadside ballad of the 1830s, originally printed by Harkness of Preston; I first found this in Roy Palmer's book A Touch on the Times: Songs of Social Change. The tune is "Bow Wow Wow", regularly used for broadsides of this period.

The song is a little too, er, Gilbert and Sullivan? for my tastes. That's what it conjures up for me anyway. And I admit to cutting it down from 9 verses to 6 verses (those who want the full words, do feel free to get in touch with me). Nevertheless, I have personally lamented some aspects of Liverpool's change in recent years, particularly the compulsory purchase and demolition of Victorian homes in Edge Hill, and the enclosure of swathes of the town for the Duke of Westminster's cathedral to consumerism and chain stores, "Liverpool One". It's therefore interesting to hear a song sort of lamenting the rate and scale of change to the town back in the early part of the 19th century.

Over the course of the 19th century, Liverpool's docks expanded along the waterfront, while its population, swollen by movement from rural areas and immigration from Ireland (often en route to America and elsewhere) grew from under 100,000 to closer to 1,000,000 - above I've illustrated Liverpool as an increasingly sprawling mass by using an 1865 engraving by William Morris (whose work I wouldn't want to simplify here, but who certainly disapproved of the cramming of people into rapidly expanding cities to meet the needs of industrialisation). Of course, the emergence of Liverpool as a major city also led to much important civic architecture, and this is commemorated in the song: we hear reference to new church buildings and the grand Custom house, built on the site of Liverpool's old docks, and now itself demolished after suffering world war two damage. Today, you can look down a hole in the Liverpool One development to see the Old Dock (which this song insists was "The theme of many a sonnet") underneath. We also see reference to the expansion of land use for docks and commercial developments (such that the shoreline had receded beyond Jack Langan's, i.e. the pub run by Langan, the Irish Champion boxer, half a mile or more), and the introduction of the new police force in 1836.

It's worth noting that the enterprising people at Harkness of Preston also published very similar broadsides "Manchester's an altered town" and "Preston's an altered town", changing a few words here and there. Waste not, want not!

(I'm posting this one a couple of days late - apologies, hopefully won't become a habit!)


  1. Thank you Richard, and very well sung; I don't think I've heard anybody sing this before, but it is a fascinating comment on social history. There is a full version of the Harkness broadside in Fritz Spiegels Scouse Press packet 'Liverpool Street Songs & Broadside Ballads' but have a look at the Bodliean Ballads Collection for an even earlier song from c.1828 on the same theme:- "Liverpool Improving Daily".


  2. Wow, thanks for letting me know about the Liverpool Street Songs & Broadside Ballads packet - looks very interesting and I haven't seen it before. In fact, I was unaware of the whole 'Liverpool Packets' series until I saw one on sale in the Walker Art Gallery last week.

    I find a lot of those broadsides fascinating, and the Bodleian collection is a goldmine (thanks for pointing me to the "Liverpool Improving Daily"). My only problem with the broadsides is that I'm not that well informed about appropriate tunes, and so I generally don't have a clue what tune would have been suitable unless there's a very clear indication. This is something I have to learn more about, because there are some that I'd really like to dig out and sing.

  3. You're not the only person who has a problem finding suitable tunes for broadsides! Very few of them indicate a tune, and even those that do aren't very helpful since the original air has gone missing sometime over the last two or three hundred years!
    Cross-searching the Roud Index can often show whether a particular broadside has been collected from tradition, but otherwise there's no real harm done if you fit your own tune to match the words.
    One very useful resource for ballads and their tunes is at the late Bruce Olson's Roots of Folk website. It takes a while to find your way round, but as Bruce Olson's motto says "Keep at it; muddling through always works."